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Why punishment doesn't work (even if it seems to)

What to do instead of using threats or punishment to get your children to listen. And the "hidden" negative effects of punishment.

One of my big challenges as a parent is trying to figure out what to do when my kids misbehave.

That's because my natural inclination when my kids don't do what I say is to fall back on threats, like taking away toys or privileges. But, at least for me, it always leaves a bad taste when I use threats to get my kids to comply. I never feel good about it.

Using "violence" - like, threats or punishment - often seems like the easiest solution, but I have started to realize that just because it is the easiest solution, it is not necessarily the simplest.

Because when I use threats or punishment, it might work in the short term, but in the longer term it never seems to change the behavior. In fact, I have found that it leads to worse and more serious bad behavior.

For example, in the past I would often take away TV privileges from my son when he misbehaved. This worked to correct his behavior, but then I realized that he had started lying to me in order to avoid punishment.

Because here's the thing: kids are smart. And when you punish them, they don't necessarily learn to stop misbehaving. Rather they learn how to avoid punishment. And there is a big difference.

When I spoke to Dr Ross Greene, the best-selling author of The Exploding Child and Raising Human Beings for my book "How To Get Kids To Listen", I asked him about why it feels like punishment or consequences often makes the situation worse instead of better.

Dr Ross is a clinical psychologist, and in his work with "problem" children, he developed a model of care called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS).

This CPS model focuses on solving problems with kids, rather than modifying their behavior. Instead of placing the focus on getting your kids to comply, Dr Ross's model focuses on identifying the underlying problems that are causing "bad" behavior, and then problem solving to deal with those problems.

When I asked Dr Ross about why punishment or consequences never seems to work, he said:

That that's because consequences don't solve problems. They only modify behavior.

Dr Ross Greene

According to Dr Ross, children often lack certain skills, like flexibility, dealing with frustration, problem solving, and emotion regulation.

And this lack in skill leads to behavior that we would call "bad".

By punishing them when they behave badly, we don't fix the underlying problem or teach the lacking skill. Instead, we just teach them to hide the problem from us, causing further problems.

But, by collaboratively and proactively helping your child solve these problems, they naturally practice and develop these skills. And the "bad" behavior naturally goes away, while the new skills remain.

So, instead of teaching them to avoid punishment, or blind compliance, you are instead teaching them the skills they need out in world. Skills that have a material effect on their happiness and success.

During our interview, Dr Ross described how you can use this model of identifying and solving problems with your children. He also helped me with advice on how to deal with my daughter not wanting to sit down for dinner.

You can find the full interview with Dr Ross Greene - How to solve problems with kids instead of trying to fix their behavior - here.

Talk soon

Sue Meintjes